Tell It Slant, But Tell The Truth
A Rebuttal to the Defense of James Frey
I think we’re all familiar with the James Frey saga by now; Frey, author of the ‘memoir’ A Million Little Pieces, which is ostensibly about the years of his life spent as an alcoholic, drug addict and petty criminal, was found by TheSmokingGun.com, in an exhaustive but interesting report, to have distorted or even fabricated many key incidents in the book. The ensuing spectacle has robbed him of his credibility, though sales have remained strong (controversy tends to do that), and he was famously lambasted by Oprah Winfrey live on her show – this after her original stance as one of his staunchest supporters.
In the June ‘06 issue of The Walrus, Joseph Kertes has come out with an article entitled The Truth About Lying, where he defends Frey and his methods, contending that “he may have been lying, but he was not faking.” Unfortunately the article is not available online so I can’t link to it – you’ll either have to pick up a copy or just take my word for it <wink>.
There is no trickery or fakery in the book, just the experience of a man who has endured much and lived to tell the tale – or his take on it . . . the book is compelling precisely because Frey knew what was required to fill out the narrative. Even the life of a drug addict must have slow bits, and Frey was smart enough to leave those bits out. Is that a form of deception?
The problem with this assertion is that Kertes is either trying to deceive his own readers here, or he hasn’t done his research. Frey didn’t ‘leave bits out’ – he purposely changed or created salient details of events to make them more graphic and visceral. Here’s one instance – a minor moment from the book, but it provides an example of Frey’s modus operandi. Frey writes of his first arrest: “Got first DUI. Blew a .36, and set a County Record. Went to Jail for a week.” When The Smoking Gun investigated, they came across the police report for the incident which states that, in actuality, he only blew .21 on the Breathalyzer and was released into his parents’ custody that night on bond because he had chicken-pox and the police didn’t want him potentially infecting others in the lock-up.
The rest of the lies are thoroughly documented in the Smoking Gun exposé, so I won’t rehash any more; it makes me wonder though how Kertes can try to claim that Frey didn’t deceive his readers. Kertes’s thesis is that if “(Frey) made up some details or embellished the facts, it was in the service of a higher truth about death and resurrection.” He asserts that this is the memoirist’s job; however, I find it strains credibility to think that we’ve gotten to the point where it’s acceptable for ‘non-fiction’ to be labeled as such, but any sort of liberties may be taken in order to suit the market.
For that’s exactly why the book was packaged as it was. Frey originally pitched it as a novel; he knew all along it wasn’t a ‘memoir,’ but after 17 rejections was willing to do anything to have it published. When Doubleday got a hold of it and suggested re-imagining it as memoir, he seems not to have worried too much about the moral ramifications of this decision; to wit, he even undertook a campaign to have all the pertinent court records expunged in an effort to prevent the discovery that much of the book was made up, which obviously didn’t work.
As I mentioned, the reason this all happened as it did was purely a marketing decision. Non-fiction sells more than fiction – it’s as simple as that. There have been many debates and discussions about why this is so – my contention is that the general public feels reading fiction is too strenuous; they either don’t have the skills of critical analysis necessary to fully appreciate what an author may be trying to do in a work of literary-fiction, or else can’t be bothered to even try. If a book is labeled non-fiction, it gives them total freedom to simply read it for pleasure, not having to question anything. Publishers know this, which is why I don’t think anyone at Doubleday is losing any sleep over this whole controversy; their reaction was simply to issue a contrite apology, stick a disclaimer into the book going forward and laugh all the way to bank.
In hindsight, Frey should have either stood his ground originally and continued pitching the book as fiction, or, he could have done what I think would have been much more compelling. In an article for Slate.com, Seth Mnookin writes:
Based on all the evidence, it seems Frey’s weird, macho fear of seeing himself as a ‘victim’ led him to fabricate a life that was painful and extreme enough so as to explain the sadness and despair he felt.
This is what the book should have been about – questioning himself as to why he feels taking some drugs and having a few innocuous run-ins with the cops makes him a failure as a fuck-up; why he wishes all the incidents he concocted had actually happened.
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Kertes writes in the Walrus article: “The reality is that every writer grapples with the wish to tell the truth and the need to bend it for a higher purpose.” James Frey didn’t seem to grapple all that hard with this wish; bending the truth is one thing – shattering it and then reconstructing it with completely new parts is another.
It was Oprah who offered a perfect summation of the whole fiasco: “You can make up stories and call them novels – people have done it for years.” Let’s hope it stays this way. 03971semaj